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Wyoming’s experienced football team enters the season with optimism and championship expectations

The Wyoming Cowboys on their home football field with brown and gold spectators in the stands.
Bob Beck
/
Wyoming Public Media

The University of Wyoming (UW) Cowboys football team kicks off their season Sept. 2 at their home stadium against Texas Tech. The Pokes have plenty of optimism heading into this year despite the fact that the landscape of college sports is changing extremely fast. Wyoming Public Radio’s Will Walkey talked with UW sports reporter Ryan Thorburn to learn more. Thorburn has covered football for multiple seasons at the Casper Star-Tribune and hosts a podcast called Pokescast.

Editor's note: The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Will Walkey: Ryan Thorburn covers the Cowboys for the Casper Star-Tribune. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Ryan Thorburn: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Will.

WW: Let's start with just a basic question. How does this year's Pokes team compare to years past, and what are your expectations for them for the season?

RT: I think internally they have really high expectations for themselves. They have a lot of senior leadership on this team. Whereas last year, they went into the season with a lot of unknowns.

The transfer portal really gutted their roster to some degree after the 2021 season. That's when the rule came into being where you could leave one school, go to another school and play without having to sit out. And that really has changed college football in a major way. So they had a lot of transfers leave after 2021. They had a lot of new players starting last year. And I would have to say they were a pleasant surprise at seven and six overall. They had really low expectations.

This year, almost all those guys are back, and they have more depth. And they just have this sense that they're going to build on last year and take it to another level, which would be at least getting into the Mountain West championship game. If not kicking in the door and finally winning that title.

WW: This is Head Coach Craig Bohl’s tenth season. I think most people would say it's been fairly successful. The Pokes have been winning fairly consistently and making some good bowl games. But he has said he wants to get over that hump to the championship level. What do you think it will take for Wyoming to get to that?

RT: It is his tenth season, and actually no coach in Wyoming's history has coached this long at Wyoming. He tied Lloyd Eaton last year with nine seasons. So he'll be the longest tenured head coach in [school] history.

I think sports fans are often [asking], 'What have you done for me lately?' I think if they go back to when he was hired, they wanted stability. They wanted consistency. They wanted to beat their rivals. He has really owned the series with Colorado State. So there's a checkmark there. He has developed a lot of NFL talent, including Josh Allen with the Buffalo Bills, most notably.

But now in year ten, fans get a little impatient and they want that Mountain West Championship. And I think that is kind of the mission for him before he retires. And I'm not saying that's imminent, but that's the next step for this program. And I think they believe they have the team to do it this year.

Fans are also a little upset [that] since Josh Allen left, they haven't had much of a passing game. They're still great at running the ball. They're still great at defense. They have a great kicking game. So that is the number one question going into the season: Can Andrew Peasley, the quarterback, and the receiving corps pull the rope with the other guys and get it done?

WW: You mentioned Andrew Peasley. This team, as with every football team, is full of characters that I imagine folks around the state are going to want to follow. Who are some characters that you are following that you think really represent the Cowboys?

RT: Yeah, a lot of interesting stories. And I mentioned the leadership -- Peasley, because of the COVID year, which didn't count your eligibility, [and] because of a red-shirting, Peasley is a six-year college football player. He was at Utah State for four years. [He] came to Wyoming through the transfer portal. He's a character just that he's so mature. He's married now. He has a child now.

And there's other guys like Cole Godbout. He is a six-year defensive lineman who probably would be in an NFL training camp right now, but he had an injury last year and decided to use that extra year to come back.

They have a defensive end that I think has a great story – DeVonne Harris – just because he is a character. He's a guy from Minnesota. There's this name, image and likeness (NIL) rule now where you can make money off of your name, image and likeness. And a lot of programs, maybe in the South, were using that as pay-to-play. It's designed [so that] you can do advertisements or you can sign autographs and make money.

DeVonne Harris doesn't even seem to realize that that's a thing because he literally worked at Dairy Queen last year during the football season. He's going to school. He's going to practice. He's playing in games. He's working at Dairy Queen all these shifts making blizzards. And, you know, instead of, now that he's a senior, moving on and just focusing on football. He's a potential NFL guy. He's working at Jersey Mike's this year. So I just think it's funny that so many players around the country are looking for a Jersey Mike's to pay them to wear a t-shirt or something. He's actually working there. So he's another character that I think fans are going to really love this season.

WW: Wyoming's always been known for a strong running game. [They] had some great running backs last year. And then Dawaiian McNeely was anticipated to sort of take the throne and he unfortunately had a season-ending injury. So how are the Pokes going to, I guess, fill that hole at the running back position?

RT: Yeah, another great story. [For] Dawaiian, It's sad because he had a great story. He's gone through so many injuries and just been patient waiting behind some really good players. This was his time, and [then] he tore up a knee in Fall camp. Now that's over.

They have a transfer from Northern Illinois named Harrison Waylee who I think is going to be a really good player. But he's not going to play to start the season because he's recovering from offseason knee surgery.

So you have this kid, Jamari Farrell, who was at Saddleback Community College in California. He's working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, a similar story to DeVonne Harris. He's not getting any Division I offers. His junior college career is coming to an end. And a player on Wyoming named Colin O'Brien, who had played at that same community college, tells Craig Bohl, ‘Listen, we don't have a lot of depth at running back. Why don't you take a look at this kid.’

To Craig Bohl’s credit, he listens to a player [and] watches the film. They get on it. Recruit him. He comes to Wyoming. Now all of a sudden with these injuries, he's starting against Texas Tech. He's probably never played in front of more than a couple hundred fans in junior college. [He] thought his football career was over. And now he's going to be on CBS, on national television, in the key thing that Wyoming does offensively: running the ball.

WW: Are there any other players that are on your radar that you think have a chance to, as you mentioned with one player before, maybe be in some NFL training camps next season?

RT: Well, another one of these characters is Frank Crum from right here in Laramie – Laramie High School. He was kind of an awkward, tall, big kid at Laramie High School. They don't play [with] a lot of big kids. So it was hard to project how he was going to do at the college level. His dad played at Wyoming. His grandfather played at Wyoming. They gave him a shot.

He slowly developed over the years. Now he's, I believe, six foot eight and about 325 pounds. He is the left tackle, which is a key position in football. You protect the quarterback’s blind side. I'm sure people remember that movie. And I think he's got a chance to make it in the NFL. He's got to prove he's athletic enough to hang with NFL pass rushers. But playing Texas Tech [and] playing at Texas this season – playing Boise State – he's going to definitely get a chance to prove that and show off his versatility. Because he's played different offensive line positions throughout his career here.

WW: So I want to ask a little bit about the changing landscape of college football right now. There's been a lot of conference realignment happening. Most notably, people might know [about] the breakup of the PAC-12 conference. That's a century-old West Coast football conference. How is Wyoming trying to stay relevant as conferences sort of reshuffle and there's this change in power dynamic around college football?

RT: I mean, it's really a shocking turn of events. I used to cover Oregon in the PAC-12. I've been to Rose Bowls. I've been to all the venues in the PAC-12. And I thought it was the perfect conference. They had perfect alignment. And then with the TV dollars that come into the play, all of a sudden USC and UCLA announced they're going to the BIG 10 to triple their revenue via TV. That causes some fissures. All of a sudden Oregon and Washington decide, ‘You know what, we've got to join them. It's our best option.’ And then a splinter of teams go into the Big 12, and you're left with four teams all of a sudden.

I think there was some panic at Wyoming - I wouldn't say panic - there was some consternation like, ‘Okay, are the top teams in the Mountain West going to merge with these remaining four PAC-12 teams and leave us behind?’ [UW Athletic Director] Tom Burman was very out in front of that. I think, the way it's shaping up, it looks like maybe Stanford and Cal will go to the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), which is another odd move if you're talking about geography. But it seems like Wyoming is either going to absorb Oregon State and Washington State, or at least the 12 current members are going to stick together for the time being.

But it's never going to end. TV contracts end, and then there's the next wave of it. So right now, I would say Wyoming is in a great position. The best thing they can do is beat Texas Tech. Compete at Texas. Win a Mountain West Championship. The stronger your brand is, the less likely you are to be left behind.

WW: Another thing that's changing in the college football landscape right now is – I guess you'd call it, player empowerment. These name, image and likeness deals that are happening. Big schools like Michigan or Texas A&M can shell out quite a lot of money to have players come to their school. There's also, as you mentioned, the transfer portal, which allows for people to leave a lot more easily than they might have been able to in the past. How is a small school in Laramie, Wyoming – not exactly a football powerhouse – able to attract talent to come play here? And are folks in Wyoming worried about that moving forward?

RT: Well, I think they were worried after the 2021 season because so many Wyoming players that entered the portal [and] ended up at so-called Power Five programs. They were going to places like USC and Northwestern and Oklahoma. And it’s like, ‘Okay, is Wyoming going to be able to keep this kind of talent? Or is it just going to be a farm system for bigger programs?’ And to some degree, it is.

But when you have guys like Chad Muma, who's in the NFL now. Easton Gibbs this year as [a] middle linebacker. Cole Godbout. They've been approached by these teams [who say], ‘Why don't you make the jump up?’ But they were developed and have the loyalty to Wyoming. So they've retained these guys more consistently.

Going forward, since that first initial shockwave, they had a lot of guys in the portal this year. But really only one, Emmanuel Pregnon, is a guy that you'd consider a big loss. So I think they've adapted well. They are targeting the type of guys that they think will fit at Wyoming for four years and aren't looking for NIL (name, image and likeness) money.

Wyoming's fan base does have a collective now – that's the term that is used when fans get together and pool money to have that NIL money for any guys they might want to target for that. I think it's called One Wyoming. A couple of attorneys in Laramie have started it. I know it's a lot of work for them. But if [there’s] an Andrew Peasley, or someone they feel like they could be a good Boys and Girls Club representative or something, they can approach them and offer them money to do those types of charity works.

So it's something. It's not SEC (Southeastern Conference) money, where you read that Alabama's previous quarterback was making a million dollars or more off of NIL. But it is something. And I find a lot less guys are concerned about getting that extra money than you would think. They're college kids. A lot of them really don't care about it. But there are going to be some examples of guys that come from tough backgrounds that really don't have much and could use some help and are really good football players that could do some work for charities and get that money.

WW: Last question for you. The Pokes host Texas Tech this Saturday. Big game [against] a ranked team – historic program. Do you think they have a chance and what might it take for that upset to happen?

RT: I do think they have a chance. Wyoming has hosted Oregon before. Texas, Nebraska, Washington State when Mike Leach had that team really rolling. And they weren't really competitive in those games.

I see this closer to the Missouri game in 2019 when Wyoming stunned Missouri from the SEC. Texas Tech is a 14-point favorite in Las Vegas. But, they've never experienced altitude like this. They don't probably realize just how experienced Wyoming's defense is. I know you can look on paper. You can watch the film. But I don't think they're going to really realize how intense Wyoming's going to play this game and how much they want it. So Wyoming has a chance. Clearly they're the underdog in this. But I do think something like Missouri could happen. It's going to take a great game from everyone involved. But certainly it's one of those opportunities that these guys dream about. And it would really kick start their season if they could pull off a stunner.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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